How mixed-signal design drives innovation - Embedded.com

How mixed-signal design drives innovation

The technology industry moves at the speed of lightning, with the newest, best-of-breed gadgets entering consumers’ homes every day. With every new iteration of the technology they’re using, consumers have grown to expect the best user experience possible from their devices. To meet that expectation (mostly related to product compactness and performance), engineers developing the most cutting edge technologies – from artificial intelligence to wireless power – are leveraging ICs with mixed-signal design.

Year after year, the semiconductor industry is growing at a healthy rate. 2016 saw the market’s highest-ever annual sales in the U.S., as semiconductor manufacturing, design and research totaled $338.9 billion, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA). The SIA reports that semiconductors are actually one of America’s top exports, and IC manufacturers are increasing the performance of products while decreasing the price so that next-generation technologies are more attainable for consumers.

The IC market is clearly booming, but why? The answer is simple. Technology is quite literally changing the world, and the need for speed and digitalization continues to grow at a rapid pace. Semiconductors are known to have the most growth potential in the automotive and industrial markets as both areas become more automated and computerized, according to PWC. It's not surprising, given the role ICs can play in innovation, that we are seeing more IC developers open their doors and serve those sectors. Large existing companies, like Google, Apple and Amazon, are capitalizing on this market growth by becoming vertically integrated and developing in-house IC teams. Companies are also taking advantage of this industry growth via acquisitions. For example, Intel purchased Mobileye, the chipmaker for self-driving vehicles, to gain market share in the semiconductor industry to give them a competitive edge.

When it comes to using semiconductors to help build the next great technologies, it's critical to consider three things: design, cost and expertise. When it comes to design, mixed-signal systems are typically needed for building the applications that are pushing forward the tech ecosystem – including wireless power and autonomous driving – because they are cost-effective and offer higher performance, low power and compact design. Because of the use of both digital signal processing and analog circuitry, mixed-signal ICs are designed for a very specific purpose and require a high level of expertise and careful use of computer aided design (CAD) tools. When embedded within consumer devices, automotive components or industrial applications, mixed-signal designs can lead to significant advantages both from a system and performance perspective, while enabling experiences that otherwise would not be possible.

As we have seen through the recent M&A market activity, organizations have two choices when it comes to how they implement mixed-signal designs into their products: they can build them internally or leverage outside partners to help. In both cases, the end goal is the same – use these components to bring new and exciting capabilities to the product while being sensitive to the bottom line. 

For those looking for internal development, it is salient for a company looking to embed mixed-signal design into their product to create the right product team. No matter what product is being created, in order for embedded mixed-signal ICs to work well, the engineering team must ensure they have the sophisticated technological expertise required for each phase and application. When assembling an embedded IC team and creating a next-gen technology, each member of the team has to understand his or her limitations. For example, a designer has to understand not just programming but also analog functions so he or she knows the performance of the IC and product.

When sourcing mixed-signal design from external partners, it's critical to ensure those providers have flexible solutions that can be customized to a product's specific needs. Partners who have the ability to scale up or down their components (or who have ICs to do it on their own) will be able to deliver the parts necessary to ensure cost-effective implementation.

While the challenges of mixed-signal integration can be daunting, especially to organizations in industries like automotive or industrial that are new to this area, the benefits are significant both from a system and an overall performance perspective. Mixed-signal design can reduce the size of the board (i.e. space and weight reduction) and corresponding power consumption (i.e. clean energy), all while being cost-effective. For organizations that are pushing to innovate at rapid speeds, having the right internal team or external partner to develop mixed-signal ICs is crucial.

Without integration using mixed-signal ICs, consumers would still be using the brick phone from the 90s, which weighed two pounds, allowed talk time of only 30 minutes and needed ten hours to charge. Because of mixed-signal design, we have today's smartphone, which weighs five ounces, a talk time of 14 hours or more, and takes less than one hour to charge.

Or, take wireless power for example. It’s a feature that 71 percent of consumers want in their next electronic device, according to a recent survey by AirFuel Alliance, the wireless-charging technology standards group. To meet that consumer demand, embedded system engineers have the opportunity to embed wireless power into their product via use of mixed-signal ICs. And “wireless-power-on-a-chip” creates more aesthetically pleasing devices with optimal performance, as the charging port is eliminated (avoiding potential water damage and allows for smaller device design).

The user experience of technology that leverages mixed-signal design is undeniable, as it enables more compact products with high performance, enhanced features and priced affordably. Mixed-signal design also impacts engineers’ design creativity, allowing them to make sleeker and more elegantly designed devices. Some of the examples of use of mixed-signal circuits for product enhancements include heart rate monitor on wearables or seat belt warning systems in automobiles. The applications for products with mixed-signal are endless, and essential to every best-of-breed technology hitting the market today.

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